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The trouble with statistics on child abuse and neglect in Michigan

flickr user Southworth Sailor.jpg
flickr user Southworth Sailor

Today, I reported for State of Opportunity on some alarming new statistics on child abuse and neglect in Michigan.

You can click here to get the full story.

There is some debate about how to interpret a few of the statistics in the story.

One of the things I discovered while reporting the story is that it's actually hard to get good numbers on abuse and neglect in Michigan.

The state Department of Human Services provides a monthly fact sheet that includes the number of cases that were investigated, and how many were confirmed. But the numbers only cover two months worth of reports, and there's no detail on the nature of the cases, or where they occurred.

The Michigan League for Public Policy worked with the DHS to publish some more detailed measures of abuse and neglect in the latest Kids Count report.

From my perspective, even this report leaves as many questions as answers. 

That said, the statistics we do have are cause enough for concern.

Here are four to keep in mind: 

  • There were 33,438 confirmed cases of abuse and neglect in Michigan in 2011. That's one out of every 100 kids, in that year alone. 
  • As many as 171,259 kids lived in homes where there had been a child protective services investigation in 2011. That's 1 out of every 13 kids in the state. 
  • Michigan had the 9th highest rate in the country for child abuse and neglect in 2010. The numbers got worse in 2011. 
  • Nearly 5,000 infants were confirmed victims of abuse and neglect in 2011, making ages 0-1 the most at-risk year for children in Michigan, according to the MLPP.

That last statistic is particularly troublesome, and for me it creates a whole new set of questions.
I suspect that the reason infants show up more in the statistics is because of drug testing in hospitals. Hospitals do drug tests on the mother and baby at the time of birth. My guess is that many of the abuse and neglect cases for infants are about drug addiction, but since we don't have detailed statistics, it is just a guess. 

It's important to remember that behind every statistic is a child, and numbers can never tell the full story of the suffering these children have been put through.

But the numbers do help us see just how big the problem has become in Michigan. And if we had more detailed numbers, we might have better solutions to help prevent the abuse in the first place. 

Dustin Dwyer reports enterprise and long-form stories from Michigan Radio’s West Michigan bureau. He was a fellow in the class of 2018 at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. He’s been with Michigan Radio since 2004, when he started as an intern in the newsroom.
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